Minnesota Debate Over Cell Tower Causes Gaps in Wireless Coverage

Published September 26, 2011

There appears to be no immediate relief in sight for northern Minnesota residents experiencing gaps in their cell phone coverage due to aesthetic concerns a proposed AT&T tower near Afton State Park will be visible from the St. Croix River.

The plan to build the 150-foot tower has drawn opposition from environmental groups and state agencies seeking to duplicate a success similar to the August 3 judicial decision to grant permission for AT&T to build only a 199-foot tower near the Boundary Waters Canoe area after the telecommunications company had requested approval for a 450-foot tower.

AT&T is merely thinking of their customers when choosing the location of the latest tower proposal, says AT&T spokesperson Tom Hopkins.

“We chose the location because we have a coverage gap in the area that we are addressing by adding a new tower that will help our customers,” Hopkins said.

Concerns About Visual Impact
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is one group opposed to building the tower near the state park. The agency expressed its concerns in writing to the Washington County Planning Advisory Commission, the panel in charge of the final decision.

“Our concerns center around the visual impact that the tower would have on Afton State Park and the St. Croix River. And even though the tower is not on state property and it’s also not within our statutory boundary, we’ve asked them to consider other options,” said Joel Stedman, central region manager for the Minnesota DNR’s Parks and Trails Division.

AT&T is following standard zoning procedures to gain approval for the new tower. It’s a two-step zoning process, and a Conditional Use Permit has already been approved by the Denmark Township, said Hopkins.

The second step is approval by Washington County. AT&T presented a proposal for the county’s approval at the end of September. A construction timeline will not be presented unless approval is granted.

Call for Streamlining of Process
“Streamlining the process of adding cell towers, particularly at the local level, would go a long way in improving cell coverage and delivering wireless services, including broadband, to more people more quickly,” said John Stephenson, director of the Telecommunications and Information Technology Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council.

“The FCC recently reported that nearly 25 percent of the 3,300 zoning applications for wireless facilities were pending for more than a year and some for more than three years, despite an FCC requirement that such applications be decided within a maximum of 150 days,” he added.

‘As Unobtrusive as Possible’
Among the alternative building options the DNR presented was a suggestion for design alternatives that would help disguise and mitigate the visual impact of tower.

However, Hopkins said AT&T already practices that method throughout the state.

“Our goal is to always be as unobtrusive as possible and blend our towers into the topography of the surrounding area. We’ve done that very well across the state,” he said.

Other considerations presented by the DNR are a no-build alternative, a pole lower in height, and use of other structures already in the area.

“It’s useful to remember that the AT&T employees who design, engineer, and build these towers are Minnesotans who live and work in the state,” Hopkins said “We have just as much of an interest to maintain the natural beauty of Minnesota as anyone and at the same time deliver the wireless voice and data services that residents in places like Afton want and need,” he said.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.